With Oct. 16 marking one year since Dan Wheldon's passing at the Las Vegas IndyCar finale, RACER.com reflects on some of the popular Briton's career milestones. This time: Andretti Autosport team principal Michael Andretti on Wheldon's three years with the squad, and what a return could have meant for 2012.
As 2003 dawned, changes abounded for Andretti Green Racing. The team was transitioning from CART – and its mix of ovals and road and street courses, to the all-oval Indy Racing League. Its main driver and team co-owner, a legend in the sport was set to retire from driving. His replacement was this plucky upstart rookie who'd plied his trade in American junior open-wheel series for nearly a half dozen years, ready for his first full opportunity in the big leagues.
But when Michael Andretti signed Dan Wheldon to both replace him and serve as Andretti Green Racing's designated “star of the future” alongside Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and eventual teammate Bryan Herta, he knew he'd secured a rare talent.
“At that time, we were looking for a young driver that we could hopefully raise and get the experience from his teammates,” he says. “It was a perfect opportunity to get a young kid in there. It was still all-oval racing, so we were looking for more or less an oval driver, and Dan had a very successful upbringing on those. He'd won the USF2000 title, which had a lot of ovals, and won about every race. So that was the first thing that caught our eye.
“We decided we'd test him and he really impressed us, so we decided to sign him. We needed a guy who could come in, and I'd start the season and run until Indy and we'd get someone to replace me – and that wound up being Dan, which was perfect.”
Wheldon – often referred to by his teammates as “the younger brother we didn't want, then the guy we couldn't live without” – immediately jelled with the team. With chemistry something that can't be forced, it required very little from Andretti's eyes to see he'd be a perfect fit and set the ball in motion for the happy family that dominated the sport for three years.
His oval skills impressed from the get-go. Andretti won 14 oval races in his own career and Wheldon beat that number by one, with 15 of his 16 career IndyCar wins in a much shorter time frame.
“There were only a few guys that knew what it took, and were particularly good at drafting – he was one of them. Really good,” Michael recalls. “He just took to it. At the time, we felt when he drove for us, there were three or four guys who really got it. He was one of them.
“It's something that happens naturally, it's something that he felt and he knew where to put his car at the right time. It came naturally on the ovals.”
According to Andretti, the gold standard of Wheldon's drives at AGR came on the biggest stage – the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Fighting a rather ill-handling car, Wheldon drove the thing sideways for seemingly most of the race but gradually played himself into contention.
“He had such a loose car the whole race and he hung onto it,” he explains. “Looking at the on-board footage, he drove it from the back – 16th I think, but it was far back. He drove up through the field, and that car was sideways the whole time! He carried it through – his car control was phenomenal – and that was, to me, his most impressive drive with us.”
The exception to the oval dominance was the memorable and iconic image of AGR's top-four sweep at the IRL's first street course race, St. Petersburg 2005, which Wheldon won. It came as a bit of a surprise because Andretti didn't have the same lofty expectations for him on road and street courses – but setting the fastest time in a preseason test quickly removed those doubts.
The banter between the drivers was profound in those years, as well. Andretti, though, said Wheldon “knew better” than to pull a prank on the boss. He stood back and let the drivers engage in shenanigans entirely on their own.
“I let them go and do all the dirty work, but it was fun to watch,” he jokes.
Andretti and Wheldon only raced four times against each other – Wheldon's team debut as Franchitti's injury replacement at Japan, 2003, and Andretti's last three Indianapolis 500s (2003, 2006, 2007). At no point was there ever real wheel-to-wheel battle between the two; Andretti's near Indy win in 2006 came via strategy in a race Wheldon led 148 laps, but he fell back after a late pit stop gone awry.
For 2012, Wheldon was set to return to the renamed Andretti Autosport fold, as replacement for Danica Patrick in the GoDaddy-sponsored car. A renewed desire to bounce back from two frustrating years at Panther Racing and being sidelined the majority of 2011, despite his triumphant Indianapolis 500 win, opened the doors for a reunion.
“His Indy win was definitely part of it, but also, it was the fact we knew Dan real well. We knew he was really hungry. And he was really on board to come back,” Andretti says.
“The biggest thing was his personality. We knew he'd be a great personality to work with GoDaddy – we thought it would be a good marriage. The combination of all of that would bring us back together.
“When he walked into the room, the room just lit up,” he concludes. “He had that type of personality, like you said, that made people feel special. That's something that you can't teach. Fans loved him because of it. He just got it. He was a special guy, with a great personality, and you loved being around him.”
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